The Church of the Transfiguration
Location: 1 East 29th Street
During the New York City draft riots, the Rev. Dr. George Hendric Houghton stared down an angry mob coming for the African-Americans who sought sancturary in the church, shouting “You white devils, you! Do you know nothing of the spirit of Christ?” That kind of gentleman.
He had originally sought to establish an Episcopoal church near the immiserated surroundings of Bellevue Hospital. He settled for some fields where cows still grazed: this was a church in a rural setting designed simply, if somewhat self-consciously, to resemble the rural churches of England. That idyll was disrupted as, mere moments later, New York’s super-rich came barrelling down Fifth Avenue, leaving behind their brownstones, their mansions, their churches, making these pastures a city. Most of them have been replaced; wedged between the mid-rises and high-rises, you now encounter this pocket Eden like an accident. But it’s not some naturalist rebuke to its surroundings. It is an anomaly in a city full of them. There is nothing foreign to New York. It absorbs all.
Even after the city came and the church could afford to add the main tower, the transept, the lich-gate, and two chapels, its mission remained. The comedic actor Joseph Jefferson, known for his portrayal of Rip Van Winkle (eventually captured on film in 1896), visited the nearby Church of the Atonement to secure a funeral for his colleague, George Holland. Acting was considered a profession barely more dignified than prostitution, so the rector, Rev. William T. Sabine, balked at a church funeral, leaving Jefferson with “I believe there is a little church around the corner where they do that sort of thing.” By one account, Jefferson responded with “If that be so, sir, God bless the little church around the corner!” The informal name of The Little Church Around the Corner stuck, and no brief on the church can go without telling that story, the brief you’re reading included.